The Study Dude—Grammar Gift

Did you beg Santa for a leather-bound grammar book?  Nothing calms me more than writing.  Some people write to make sense of their story, some to laugh at themselves, some to help others.  I do all three.  And to write half-well, I read grammar books.

Decades ago, while upgrading English 30, my study of grammar snatched me the top grade.  And back in high school, I skipped a grade of French to prove I got grammar.  Sadly, the instructor taught French immersion.  Not a word of English.  For most of the class, I barely tuned in, rarely raised my hand.  The teacher teased me, abused me, nearly stalked me, but come exam time, I scored.

Later, I lost my grip on grammar.  Yet, my mentor pressed me to write a fundraising letter for a charity I founded.  When I groaned, she piped, “Either you write, or I’m gone.”  So, I scrambled, trembling, searching my mailbox for a template, finding nothing.  But wait!  A Reader’s Digest Sweepstake entry form.  My final letter raised zero funds, but gained comic relief, gambler style.

The worst writer’s mistake?  If ever you write grammar articles, whatever you do, don’t use a cutesy name.  One prof scoffed at a student who, red-faced, made a grammar faux pas.  The student defended her error, citing not Oxford, not Cambridge, not Harvard—but the Grammar Girl.  That’s like citing Dummies Guides in your dissertation.

Barbara Baig reveals ways to spice sentences in her book Spellbinding Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Achieving Excellence & Captivating Readers:

  • Writers use sentence structure to “ratchet up (or down) the suspense, to make readers laugh, to surprise them, to make them cry, and much more” (p. 157).
  • Sprinkle in your writing a blend of four sentence types: statements, questions, commands, and exclamations. By doing so, you turn your writing, as if by magic, from a loaf of bread into a birthday cake.  Yum!
  • A “kernel” is the shortest sentence, consisting of a noun and a verb: He sang or She saw the stars, for example. Begin or end a paragraph with a kernel (i.e., a basic sentence structure) to liven up your writing.
  • Make what is called an asyndeton by joining three kernels together with a comma. In doing so, you commit a comma splice—a no-no in essays!  But a yes-sir in creative writing.
  • Modify a kernel’s verb or noun (or both). As modifiers, use single words, phrases, or clauses.
  • Modify with prepositional phrases such as “under the rainbow” and “over the mountain”: The man whistled under the rainbow.
  • Or modify with participial phrases such as “tooting his horn” and “smiling secretly”: The man, smiling secretly, whistled under the rainbow.
  • Place modifiers either before the subject, between the subject and predicate, or after the predicate. Think in this order: “modifier + subject + modifier + predicate + modifier.”  Easy?
  • But make sure the modifiers make sense in the spot you choose.
  • A special kind of modifier, called a free modifier, can be placed in any of the above orders without losing meaning: (1) before subject: Elegantly yet frailly, she danced, (2) between subject and predicate: She, elegantly yet frailly, danced, and (3) after predicate: She danced elegantly yet frailly. 
  • Use modifiers to create drama, to bolster momentum, to add suspense, or to add rhythm.

A final caveat—for when you gift your niece that Christmas grammar book:  what you sacrifice in social skills, you claim in structure.

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